Sunday, January 21, 2018

Episode 028: Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer

Last week we looked at colonial concerns over the Townshend Acts, as the British government, appointed government ministers increasingly hostile to colonial views.  The colonists still did not not really have a principled rationale on which to make a stand against the taxes.  They did not want to pay the taxes and were concerned about them becoming more onerous.  Arguing, though, that they just didn’t want to pay money did not seem particularly effective.  The Townshend Acts took effect in November 1767.

Colonial response initially seemed to be grudging acceptance, or at least an inability to agree on how to protest the new Acts.  This week, one man finds a way to rally public opinion against the new laws.

Letters from a Farmer

In December 1767, an anonymous letter appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette signed simply “A Farmer.”  For the next twelve weeks, the "farmer" would write a new letter each week.  All twelve letters criticized various aspects of the Townshend Acts and called upon the colonists to act.  Almost all the newspapers in North America carried some or all of the letters during the winter and spring of 1768.  After publication completed, printers published the series as a pamphlet, distributed in both America and England.

John Dickinson

Although published anonymously, everyone soon discovered that the author was John Dickinson.  Since Dickinson went on to be a part of many things in the Revolution, I’ll give a little background on him now.  Dickinson was born in Maryland to a prominent lawyer.  When he was a boy, his family moved to Delaware.  Dickinson left to study law in London for several years, making him one of the most well educated lawyers in North America.  He started a practice in Philadelphia, and served in the Pennsylvania Assembly.  At the time, many considered Delaware to be part of Pennsylvania, only with an independent legislature.  Several politicians served in both the Delaware and Pennsylvania assemblies, sometimes at the same time.

John Dickinson
(from Dickinson College)
Dickinson began his political career as an opponent of Benjamin Franklin.  Dickinson supported the Penn family as proprietors of the colony, while Franklin sought to get a royal charter, thus dumping the Penn family from the government.  As a result of this fight, Dickinson lost his seat in the 1764 elections.  Not to worry though, because Dickinson also owned a plantation in Delaware, he also sat in the Delaware legislature at the same time. After losing his Pennsylvania election, he continued to serve in Delaware.

A vocal opponent of the Stamp Act, Dickinson participated in the Stamp Act Congress in 1766 (see, Episode 23).  Dickinson was primarily a lawyer and politician.  He did own a rather large tobacco plantation in Delaware.  But his letters claimed that he owned a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He deliberately mislead readers about his background. I guess Letters from a Philadelphia Lawyer sounded less quaint than Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.  Most of the framers who published articles seemed to be ok with hiding or outright lying about who they were.  We should not only pick on Dickinson for this.

First Letter

Dickinson’s first letter attacks the New York Restraining Act.  The Letter itself is couched in relatively moderate terms about the need to respect our troops and that it is commendable for colonies to provide them with things.  However, he then goes on to say that Parliament should not be able to compel a colony to contribute against its will.  That is essentially the same as levying an internal tax.  Forcing people to spend money when they do not want to do so is essentially the same as taxing them and then spending that tax money for that purpose.

He notes that if Parliament can suspend the New York legislature for whatever it likes, it could use that same power against any colony.  He calls on all the colonies to unite against this action.  He also calls on Parliament to repeal the Act, even though it was already effectively dead letter since New York had already come up with the required money.

Letter Two

In his second letter, Dickinson takes aim at the Revenue Act.  He concedes that Parliament has long held the authority to collect duties as part of its regulation of trade.  Yet the current act is far different from any before it.  The new law is explicitly for the purpose of raising revenue, and not for controlling trade in any way.  For this reason, he argues that it is just as obnoxious as the Stamp Act.

He goes on to address the argument that people could refuse to pay the duties simply by not purchasing those items from Britain. But many of the items taxed are not made in the colonies.  Further, Parliament has the power to forbid production of certain goods in the colonies.  That power makes it impossible to avoid payment of duties in some circumstances.  Therefore, a tax on imports for the sole purpose of raising revenue, rather than regulating trade, is unconstitutional.

Letter Three

Dickinson’s third letter addresses the concern that Great Britain is too powerful to challenge.  He points out that they just successfully challenged Britain over the Stamp Act.  If an injustice is allowed to stand, the burden will only become greater and more difficult to change at a later time.  That is why impositions on our liberty need to be nipped in the bud at the very start.

He praises the King and the government as wonderful institutions and notes that America could never have thrived independently from them.  Any attacks on colonial liberties are the results of mistakes or temporary passions that can be overcome.  He urges calm and deliberate resistance to such measures.  At the same time, the colonies must resist or things will get worse.

The first step starts with petitions to make the government aware of colonial concerns and give them an opportunity to change.  If that does not work, they must cut back on trade and make Britain feel the economic pain of colonial resistance.  Surely, if we do this in a calm and united way, those good folks in London will see the error of their ways and institute proper reforms.

Letter Four

The fourth letter attempts to expand on the difference between internal and external taxes.  He notes that external taxes in the form of customs duties for the purpose of regulating trade are reasonable because the main purpose is regulating trade within the Empire.  Tariffs for the sole purpose of raising revenue, and giving colonists no choice on whether or not to pay, is just as wrong as a direct internal tax like the Stamp Tax.

Letter Five

The fifth letter looks at the history of Britain’s relationship with the colonies, noting that before the Stamp Act, Britain never attempted to create a law for the purpose of extracting revenue from the colonies.  He stresses that the purpose of colonies anywhere is to strengthen and enrich the mother country.  It is appropriate for the Britain to pass laws that force the colonies to remain dependent.

However, such laws must be limited to the regulation of trade.  Britain could bar colonies from trading with foreign powers or their colonies.  It could prevent colonies from engaging in certain types of manufacturing or other industry.  It could even restrict trade within the Empire.

In doing all this, Britain had created a successful trading system that benefited the home country greatly.  It already had a financial benefit from the colonies without the power of direct taxation.  The overreach of direct taxation, therefore, only risked harming this beneficial system.

Letter Six

Pamphlet Cover: Letters from 
Farmer in Pennsylvania
(From Mass. Hist. Soc.)
Dickinson’s sixth letter tackles the issue of how to determine if a duty is collected for revenue or for trade regulation.  He notes that this case is simple. The law explicitly says that its purpose is revenue.  But what is to stop Parliament from passing a similar bill and simply claiming it is for trade regulation?  It is, he argues, appropriate to look at the regulations themselves to see if they are designed to alter trading patterns or simply to extract money.  If the latter, they are a violation of fundamental rights.

Whatever the claimed purpose, a free people must remain vigilant as to the real purpose.  They must resist any attempts at extracting revenue or they will slide into slavery.

Letter Seven

In his seventh letter, Dickinson takes on the concern that challenging these laws is an unpatriotic challenge to the King and his government.  To this he suggests that, of course, the King and most of his leaders are good men who would support all of our freedoms. Sometimes though, designing men may try to sneak through destructive legislation.  He even names the bad old former Prime Minister Grenville as part of the group that may have done this.  Protesting is just the way of getting the attention of the good leaders to set things right.

Next, he addresses the concern that the duties don’t even apply to most people since only importers pay the duty. The duties raise the prices that everyone pays for these items, meaning we pay the tax indirectly but don’t realize it.  This is the way, he notes, tyrants like Roman emperors extracted exorbitant sums without the public noticing.

Finally, he addresses the notion that these duties aren’t really that high, so what’s the big deal?  To this, he points out that the taxes are starting out low to set a precedent.  Once we’ve accepted that, later Parliaments can raise the prices through the roof.  There is no principled argument objecting to the amount of taxes.  Once we allow that these types of taxes are acceptable, there is no limit on how high they can go later.

Letter Eight

Letter number eight critiques the notion that colonies should be paying for their own defense.  To this, Dickinson suggest that the defense of all the lands controlled by Britain in North America does not necessarily benefit the English colonies from New Hampshire to Georgia.  These colonies are filled with good, loyal, and peaceful British subjects who don’t need any standing armies.

The army is needed to control the dominions in Canada and the Floridas.  That is where all the military spending is going. British occupation of those lands don’t really benefit the other colonies.  In some ways they hurt it by distributing the population and hemming in colonial borders.  Control of those dominions benefits the Empire more generally. Therefore, the Empire should bear the costs, not just the neighboring colonies.

Letter Nine

In his ninth letter, Dickinson focused on the concern that funds from the Act would go to pay colonial judges. This would take away one of the few levers of power available to colonial legislatures.  Judges paid from London would have no incentive to take into account the concerns of colonists.  They could issue general warrants, then rule on their proper use if challenged. Courts would become stacked against the colonists

Letter Ten

The tenth letter raised the concern that new tax money would increase the incentive to dump more expensive government positions in the colonies.  Friends and family to people of influence in London were always looking for high paying government jobs.  Lucrative military, civil, and religious positions would be foisted on the colonies paid for with ever-increasing taxes.

To illustrate this problem, he points to Ireland, where England had filled the government with useless high paying government jobs, many of which came with generous pensions as well.  The poor working people of Ireland were always straining to pay for these luxurious positions.  Many salaries went to people who seemed to do nothing and often lived in England.  It did not seem a stretch that the same pattern would come to America if the colonists did not resist at the outset.

Letter Eleven

In his eleventh Letter, Dickinson returned to the notion that injustices start out small and innocuous only to grow over time.  He pointed to the historic example of the King who started the use of a standing army with only 50 men.  Over the generations, it slowly grew into an army of thousands.  Similarly, excise taxes in Britain started off as minuscule but grew more burdensome over time.  He conceded that the British paid higher taxes that the colonists did under these laws.  That only showed that there was a near certainty that if these lower amounts were accepted that they would at least grow to the more burdensome levels paid in England.

Letter Twelve

The twelfth and final letter urged everyone in the colonies to stand firm and united against even minor encroachments.  It might be hard to work up the energy to fight a tax that did not affect an individual directly.  But unless everyone remained vigilant and worked together against such measures, those in London would divide and conquer.  They would go after small groups to vanquish them.  Once complete, they would go after others who had stood by while the first group went down to defeat.

The Reaction

Dickinson was not the only writer rallying colonial opinion against the Townshend Acts, but his efforts did seem to be the most influential and widely read articles on the topic.  Even before he published the last letter in February 1768, colonial leaders began to step up and take action.

In December, following a Boston newspaper’s publication of the first two letters, James Otis presided over a town meeting that instructed the House to draft a petition calling for repeal of the Acts which violated their sacred rights. In February, the Massachusetts Assembly sent out a circular letter to all the colonial assemblies. The letter was actually pretty tame and respectful, but argued that any duties for the purpose of raising revenues violated their constitutional rights. By April, Virginia produced similar petitions.  Other colonies soon followed suit.  Dickinson seems to have inspired everyone to begin a coordinated attack.

Shutting Down Protest

The new Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs Hillsborough reacted immediately.  In his view, the colonies just needed a firm hand to put an end to this nonsense.  In April, he sent a circular letter of his own to the colonial governors, calling the Massachusetts letter an “attempt to disturb the public peace.”  He demanded that the governors prevent their legislatures from acting on these letters.  If they persisted, he instructed the governors to suspend the legislative session.  He also instructed Massachusetts Gov. Bernard to have his legislature rescind the initial letter.

Upon receipt of his letters, all the colonies meekly complied and the matter was over quickly.

Just kidding of course! Hillsborough’s attempt to shut down the debate with force was exactly the wrong way to go.  It only angered the colonists further.  The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly rejected the order to rescind their protest letter.  Gov. Bernard disbanded the House for the rest of the year.  In the next elections the few members who voted to comply with Hillsborough mostly lost their seats.  Voters replaced them with representatives with sturdier backbones.

Before Hillsborough’s letters even arrived in the colonies, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut had already approved protest petitions.  After receiving Hillsborough’s instructions, legislatures in Maryland, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia ignored Hillsborough and approved their own petitions.  Virginia even doubled down, passing another resolution condemning Hillsborough’s attempt to prevent them from coordinating petitions with other colonies.  Only New York, still reeling from its spanking over the Quartering Act, had failed to act.  By December, 1768 though, even New York joined its 12 neighbors in supporting a petition for repeal of the Townshend Acts.

At the same time the legislatures were protesting, citizens began taking their own actions.  In August, Boston merchants agreed to stop importing all goods subject to Townshend duties until Parliament repealed them.  They further agreed to cease all import of anything from Britain, except for a very small list of necessities, for all of 1769.  Salem, Massachusetts and New York City soon followed with similar non-importation agreements of their own.  Philadelphia signed a temporary agreement in February, hoping for word that Britain would blink and back down.  When they did not, Philadelphia merchants agreed to their own permanent non-importation agreement in April 1769.  Other cities followed suit with similar agreements over the next few months.

The Southern colonies were slower to react.  In the spring of 1769 George Washington and George Mason were still corresponding about how best to get Virginia to adopt a non-importation agreement.  The House of Burgesses attempted to take up the matter in May, only to have the Royal Governor summarily end the session before they could act.  The representatives adjourned to a nearby tavern where they signed the non-importation agreement as a private agreement.  In July, Charleston South Carolina merchants hesitated to act, but finally developed a non-importation agreement signed by over 200 merchants.  For a time, it looked like they would wait forever, but then they knew that it was now or never.  After all, it was the summer of ‘69!  By fall, North Carolina and Georgia adopted similar agreements.

While there were no riots in the streets, the petitions and non-importation agreements began to take their effect.  Many colonists seemed to hope that Pitt would return and straighten out his ministry.  When Pitt finally resigned in October 1768, Colonists realized that Grafton’s ministry showed no signs of backing down.  In fact, officials were moving toward more aggressive suppression even of peaceful protests to their laws.

To add to the tension, another rumor started in 1769 that England was going to attempt to establish Anglican Bishops in America, a few of those lucrative useless positions that Dickinson warned would cost more tax dollars.  Also, the Massachusetts Assembly, still annoyed with Hillsborough’s power plays against them, refused to provide funds under the Quartering Act for the small number of British troops quartered in their colony.  Both sides seem bent on provoking the other into further action.

Next Week: The seizure of a ship named Liberty sparks a riot in Boston.

Next Episode 29: The Liberty Riot

Previous Episode 27: Prime Minister Pitt Falls From Power

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Further Reading:

Web Sites

Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson) (full text):

Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (includes copy of original pamphlet and audio recordings of all 12 letters):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bradford, Alden (ed) Speeches of the Governors of Massachusetts from 1765-1775: and the answers of the House of Representatives to the same; with their resolutions and addresses for that period and other public papers relating to the dispute between this country and Great Britain which led to the independence of the United States, Boston: Russell and Gardner, 1818.

Scharf, J. Thomas History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, Vol. 1,  Philadelphia: LH Everts & Co. 1884.

Stillé, Charles The life and times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808, Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania 1891.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Calvert, Jane E Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008.

Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary, Charlottesville, University Press, 1983

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Murchison, William The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books 2013

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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